Friday, 15 Aug, 2008 Science

World's First Robot With a Biological Brain


Scientists at the University of Reading have developed world's first robot that is controlled by a biological brain, which was created using cultured rat neurons.

It seems that researchers managed to set a first step in mixing natural and artificial intelligence. Their creation may bring light to the primary building blocks of memory and learning.

Kevin Warwick, a professor who works at the University of Reading and is one of the main architects of Gordon mentioned that the main goal is to understand the way memories are actually stored within a natural brain. He also said that by analyzing the way brain cells form a network while firing off electrical impulses may help researchers fight neurodegenerative diseases, meaning those that attack the brain (Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases are considered to be neurodegenerative diseases).

Gordon resembles the hero of the popular cartoon Wall-E. It has a biological brain created from 50,000 to 100,000 active neurons. After the specialized nerve cells have been removed from rat fetuses and separated from each other using an enzyme bath they were arranged across an 8-by-8 cm array (composed of 60 electrodes) in an environment rich in nutrients.

It would be worth mentioning that the "multi-electrode array" (MEA) plays the role of an interface between live tissue and machine with the biological brain emitting electrical impulses to move the wheels of the robot, and getting impulses brought by sensors responding to the medium.

Due to the fact that the brain is composed of living tissue, scientists store it in a special unit where scientists can control the level of temperature. It communicates with the robot's body through a Bluetooth radio link. Gordon does not include extra control from a human computer - the neurons start working from the very beginning.

"Within about 24 hours, they start sending out feelers to each other and making connections. Within a week we get some spontaneous firings and brain-like activity" which happens just like in a standard rat or human brain, said Warwick. However, he added that the brain requires external stimulation, because it may dry up and die in just a few months.

At a certain degree Gordon learns by itself. For example when he hits a wall, Gordon receives an electrical stimulation from the sensors. As the robot tackles such circumstances it learns by habit. Scientists mentioned that Gordon has multiple personalities due to the fact that it contains several multi-electrode array "brains".

"It's quite funny - you get differences between the brains. This one is a bit boisterous and active, while we know another is not going to do what we want it to," said Warwick.

Neither scientists at Reading nor other researchers around the world are going to use human neurons in the same experiments any time soon. Such decision was made mainly for ethical reasons.

Source: Computer World

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